A Win for Judicial Sentencing Discretion in Armed Robbery Cases; Additional Reform Still Needed

Posted by:
Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Law & Legal System, Federal Sentencing, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
Leave a Comment »

A photo of the Supreme CourtEarlier this month, in Dean v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that federal sentencing judges retain some discretion to soften the notoriously draconian sentencing scheme of 18 U.S.C. §924(c). The statute establishes a mandatory prison term when a defendant uses or possesses a firearm in connection with a violent or drug trafficking crime. Unlike most minimums, though, this one must be imposed to run consecutively with any other sentences imposed at the same time. Thus, for instance, a defendant convicted of both a robbery and possession of a firearm during the robbery must get at least five years on top of whatever sentence is ordered for the robbery.

But what if a judge—in light of all of the facts of the case and the circumstances of the defendant—decides that five years is a sufficient punishment for the crime? Could the judge impose a sentence of just one day on the robbery count, so that the total sentence does not exceed what is necessary? In other words, in sentencing for the robbery count, can the judge take into consideration what she will have to impose for the §924(c) count?

Yes, said the Supreme Court in Dean.   Read more »




Supreme Court Permits Some Light Into the Black Box of Jury Deliberations

Posted by:
Category: Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Public, Race & Law, U.S. Supreme Court
Leave a Comment »

A photo of the Supreme CourtJury deliberations are the proverbial black box. After passively receiving the law, evidence, and arguments at a trial, the jurors will retire to discuss the case in secret. When they return with a verdict, no explanation will be required for their decision. Afterward, the jurors will normally be instructed that they need discuss the case with no one. The parties are left to wonder how well the jurors understood the governing law, attended to the key evidence, and faithfully attempted to apply the former to the latter.

Occasionally, the public catches some glimpse of what happens inside the black box. But when this happens, the law’s typical response echoes the famous admonition of the Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” This position is reflected in Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), which generally prohibits jurors from testifying about their deliberations and thought processes when the validity of a verdict is challenged.

Although it seems perfectly sensible to discourage losing litigants from harassing jurors in the hope of uncovering errors, it is not so clear that the system benefits when judges are required to turn a blind eye to substantial evidence that a jury’s decisionmaking went off the rails.  Read more »




More Doubts About the Court’s Resolution of the John Doe Investigation

Posted by:
Category: Constitutional Interpretation, Constitutional Law, Election Law, Public, U.S. Supreme Court, Wisconsin Supreme Court
Leave a Comment »

Today, the United States Supreme Court summarily affirmed the decision of a Three Judge Panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in  Independence Institute v. Federal Election Commission.  By affirming the panel in this case, the U.S. Supreme Court seriously undermined the legal rationale that the Wisconsin Supreme Court relied upon when it dismissed the John Doe investigation into possible illegal campaign coordination during the Governor Walker Recall Election.  In one sense, today’s action by the U.S. Supreme Court merely establishes the narrow rule that “electioneering activity,” which encompasses a variety of activity beyond express advocacy on behalf of a candidate for office, is subject to regulation without violating the U.S. Constitution.

However, the action of the U.S. Supreme Court is significant because it also necessarily rejects a converse proposition: that the scope of permissible government regulation of election activity is limited to conduct which constitutes “express advocacy.”  The Independence Institute case is relevant to the John Doe Investigation because both cases raise the legal question of whether the U.S. Constitution permits any regulation of election activity other than “express advocacy” or its functional equivalent.  “Express advocacy” is usually defined as a communication that expressly advocates for the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.

The Independence Institute is a nonprofit organization.  It challenged disclosure requirements contained in the McCain-Feingold Act which would have required it to disclose its donors if it spent more than $10,000 on “electioneering communications” in the 60 days before a general election (or the 30 days before a primary election).  The group argued that this statutory requirement was unconstitutional because it went beyond the regulation of express advocacy.  As described by Judge Wilkins in an earlier proceeding in the D.C. Circuit, the argument of the Independence Institute reduced to the argument that “the only speech that should be considered an electioneering communication, and therefore trigger the BCRA’s reporting and disclosure requirements, is speech that is ‘unambiguously related’ to a campaign.”  The group wanted the Court to rule that the disclosure requirement in the statute could only be enforced in instances involving express advocacy.

If this sounds familiar, it is because the legal argument advanced by the Independence Institute is parallel to the reasoning adopted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in its opinion ending the John Doe Investigation (State ex rel. Two Unnamed Petitioners v. Peterson, 2015 WI 85).  Read more »




Court Wrestles With Vagueness and Retroactivity in Sentencing Context

Posted by:
Category: Constitutional Interpretation, Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
Leave a Comment »

honore%20daumier%20-%20le%20proveYesterday’s oral argument in Beckles v. United States found the justices wrestling with retroactivity and vagueness in the context of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The petitioner, Travis Beckles, questioned the constitutionality of the residual clause of the career-offender provision in Section 4B1.2 of the guidelines after the Supreme Court, in Johnson v. United States, found an identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act to be unconstitutionally vague. Beckles asked the court to rule first on whether a favorable ruling on the constitutional question – on which he and the government agree — would be retroactive on collateral review. Even if the court were to find in favor of Beckles on both counts, he could still lose because of a unique interplay between the career-offender guideline and the guideline commentary, which specifically declared his offense – possession of a sawed-off shotgun – to be a crime of violence.

With her opening question, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg forced Janice Bergmann, representing Beckles, to focus on the third issue in the case: the relationship between the guidelines’ residual clause and the commentary, which specifically listed Beckles’ offense of conviction as a crime of violence. A number of justices took issue with Bergmann’s assertion that the commentary cannot define “shapeless” language, a term taken from Johnson. After all, they noted, the guideline commentary, at least in part, interpreted the residual clause, presumably providing meaning in that manner. They also questioned whether the commission was not in the best position to clarify its own language. Bergmann responded that the guideline language was not the commission’s, but rather was drawn from the ACCA residual clause. Any interpretation and examples offered by the commission, she argued, would therefore be arbitrary.

Justice Samuel Alito was the first to direct the argument to the question of what vagueness would mean in a guideline-free world. Along with Justice Stephen Breyer, Alito reminded Bergmann that pre-guideline sentencing appears substantially more vague and arbitrary than the residual clause, as do many of the current guideline provisions. In response, Bergmann asserted that the guideline residual clause is unique among those provisions because of its identity with the ACCA residual clause, and that it shares the same characteristics embodied in the categorical approach that ultimately caused the court to declare the ACCA provision void for vagueness.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy continued along similar lines by pointing to the decrease in vagueness any guideline, even a vague one, would provide as compared to the previous system of discretionary sentencing. Why, they asked, should greater precision lead to greater vagueness? Read more »




Supreme Court to Tackle Constitutionality of Residual Clause in Sentencing Guidelines

Posted by:
Category: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
Leave a Comment »

hardy_they_shall_show_you_the_sentence_of_judgmentIn 2015, in Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA) as unconstitutionally vague, ruling that the provision did not give ordinary people adequate notice of what conduct was prohibited by the statute. The residual clause had included among the category of “violent felonies” any felony that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” Next week, in Beckles v. United States, the court will confront the constitutionality of the sentencing guidelines’ version of the residual clause. This is one of two cases this term that address the effect of Johnson on the vagueness doctrine. (The other case, Lynch v. Dimaya, arises in a statutory context.) Two of the nine justices who joined in the six-justice majority opinion in Johnson, including its author – the late Justice Antonin Scalia – will not participate in this case. Because Justice Elena Kagan is recused, a seven-member court will render a decision.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is responsible for drafting and amending the sentencing guidelines, removed the guideline residual clause earlier this year and supplanted it in part by commentary, which is also at issue here. It did not, however, make the change retroactive. This case brings the question of retroactivity squarely in front of the court, continuing the interplay between the commission and the court. The ostensible issues of vagueness and retroactivity, however, camouflage a broader question about the meaning and function of advisory guidelines.

Notably, the government has changed its position on both retroactivity and vagueness. Although it supported the defendant’s claims in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit – and those of similarly situated defendants in other circuits – it opposes them now. Adding another dimension to the controversy, the court appointed an amicus, or “friend of the court,” to defend the 11th Circuit’s holding that the vagueness doctrine does not apply to the sentencing guidelines. The decision in this case, therefore, will have broad ramifications for vagueness jurisprudence, the meaning of advisory guidelines, and the respective roles of the commission and the court. Read more »




What Happens if Trump Drops Out?

Posted by:
Category: Constitutional Law, Election Law, Judges & Judicial Process, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
3 Comments »

Donald_Trump_-_CaricatureWhat happens if Donald Trump drops out of the presidential race?  Some Republican politicians have begun to call on Mr. Trump to step down as the Republican nominee for President (he cannot be forced out).  If this happens, the Republican Party would then select a new nominee for President.

It might be conceivable for Donald Trump to voluntarily step down, and for the Republican Party to select an alternative nominee.  However, the real issue is whether the name of the alternative nominee would appear on the ballots of a sufficient number of states to permit an Electoral College victory.  At this late date in the election cycle, the names of presidential candidates on absentee ballots have already been finalized in many states.  In fact, early absentee voting using the final ballots already is underway in Wisconsin and many other states such as California, Ohio and Indiana.  Every day, more state deadlines for placing names on the ballot pass, and it is probably already too late to prevent Donald Trump’s name from appearing as the Republican nominee on a majority of the ballots used by states across the country.  To get state officials to print new ballots and then allow re-voting of ballots already turned in would require 1) litigation in state courts across the country and 2) the willingness of a large number of these state court judges to adopt an unprecedented procedure based upon vague “emergency” arguments.  Such a high stakes multi-state litigation effort would make the combative Bush v. Gore lawsuit look like a law school moot court competition in comparison.   Read more »




Time is Running Out to Confirm Judge Garland

Posted by:
Category: Constitutional Interpretation, Constitutional Law, Judges & Judicial Process, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
2 Comments »

Merrick_Garland_speaks_at_his_Supreme_Court_nomination_with_President_ObamaThe unprecedented, and unconstitutional, obstruction of Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland is just one of many recent missteps by Republican leaders.  For example, mainstream Republican presidential candidates strategically withheld their attacks on Donald Trump during the primary season, in the hopes that he would be an easy target to topple once the field sorted out.  This was a major blunder.  More broadly, the decision of Republican leaders in Congress to make the repeal of the Affordable Care Act the centerpiece of their legislative agenda, at a time when Republicans lacked a veto-proof majority, was an empty gesture which merely fueled anger among their Party’s base and ultimately made Trump possible. Both of these decisions were political calculations that seemed clever at the time, but which turned out to have disastrous consequences for the Republican Party.   However, the unjustified refusal to hold hearings on a highly-regarded and moderate Supreme Court nominee has the potential to dwarf every other political miscalculation that Republican leaders have made over the last eight years.

First of all, it is important to recognize that Judge Merrick Garland is a laudable nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.  He is a former federal prosecutor, a highly respected Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and someone identified by Senator Orrin Hatch and other prominent Republicans (prior to his nomination) as the type of judge who would receive bi-partisan support in Congress.  Post-nomination arguments raised about Judge Garland’s supposed lack of respect for the Second Amendment are not justified by his actual opinions and, in reality, are merely a fig leaf contrived to rationalize opposition to the nomination by Republican lawmakers.

In addition, the refusal of the Senate to take up the nomination is a clear violation of the Constitution. Read more »




Limited Terms for Justices Worth Considering, Appeals Judge Says in Hallows Lecture 

Posted by:
Category: Federal Law & Legal System, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, Speakers at Marquette, U.S. Supreme Court
Leave a Comment »

Judge Albert Diaz began his E. Harold Hallows Lecture at Marquette Law School last week by saying that he was going to offer thoughts on life tenure for federal judges ”which I’m pretty confident do not reflect the views of many, if not all, of my judicial colleagues.”

But Diaz, a judge since 2010 on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, thought the ideas he presented to be worth considering, especially at a time when concerns about the U.S. Supreme Court, including how justices are appointed, are getting so much attention.

In his Eckstein Hall lecture, Diaz outlined arguments for and against both life tenure for federal judges and election of judges. He traced the debate back to the U.S. constitutional convention in 1787 and the opposing views for and against life tenure. The former prevailed, of course.

“The act of judging is not for the faint of heart,” Diaz said. “Judging is a human endeavor” and decisions are “not always free from taint.” But it is difficult to decide what “on the front end,” i.e., in determining who will be a judge, would best minimize the chances of tainted judicial work.

Read more »




The Senate Must Consider Supreme Court Nominations in Due Course

Posted by:
Category: Congress & Congressional Power, Constitutional Interpretation, Constitutional Law, Judges & Judicial Process, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
5 Comments »

Ford-Potential-Nominees-to-CourtToday, the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, announced the unprecedented decision that the United States Senate will refuse to consider any nominee put forward by President Obama during the remainder of his term in office to fill the current vacancy on the United States Supreme Court.  Senator McConnell said, “My decision is that I don’t think that we should have a hearing.  We should let the next president pick the Supreme Court justice.”

The refusal of the United States Senate to consider any nominee put forth by President Obama is a clear violation of the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution.  Under the Appointments Clause (Article II, Section 2, Clause 2):

The President . . . shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law. . .

The role of the President is to appoint nominees to the United States Supreme Court.  The role of the Senate is to provide their “advice and consent” to the President on the specific nominee.

The meaning is “advice and consent” is clear and uncontroversial.  The Framers of the Constitution recognized that absolute monarchs such as the King of England had abused the power to appoint public officials.  This abuse was due to the monarch’s absolute power to appoint anyone they chose.  In response, the Constitution divided the power to appoint superior public officials and Supreme Court Justices between the Executive (the President) and the Senate.  The Framers of the Constitution diffused the appointment power, just as they diffused several other powers among separate branches of the federal government in order to guard against abuse.

However, the separation of the power to appoint into two pieces is not split 50-50 between the President and the Senate.  Rather, the split is made between the President’s absolute power to select any nominee he or she chooses, and the Senate’s power to accept or reject the nominee.  The intent of the Appointments Clause is to give the Senate a check on the President’s choice, in order to prevent nominations that result from corruption, cronyism, or the advancement of unqualified nominees (i.e., family members).  The Appointments Clause does not give the Senate any role in deciding who or when the President will nominate.

In fact, the Senate has no pre-nomination role at all in the appointment process.  The Senate’s only role under the Constitution arises after the President makes a nomination.  In this regard, it has often been remarked that the power of initiative lies with the President under the Appointments Clause. Read more »




Justice Scalia at Marquette Law School

Posted by:
Category: Education & Law, Judges & Judicial Process, Legal Education, Marquette Law School, Public, Seventh Circuit, U.S. Supreme Court
Leave a Comment »

Judge Diane Sykes introduces Justice Antonin Scalia at the dedication of Eckstein Hall

Judge Sykes introduces Justice Scalia

It seems to be common ground that it will be hard to imagine the United States Supreme Court without the late Justice Antonin Scalia. He was a force also in legal education more directly. That is, he was a teacher, and he taught his theories of constitutional and statutory interpretation with intellect and energy, even outside of his writings in the U.S. Reports.

 

Justice Scalia visited us at Marquette University Law School on two occasions. The first was in 2001 to deliver our annual Hallows Lecture, where some 500 people were with him in the Weasler Auditorium, while a group of the same size watched a video feed in the Monaghan Ballroom of the Alumni Memorial Union. For me, the more memorable moment in that visit came when the Justice first arrived to campus, where an overflowing group of law students awaited him in Room 307 of Sensenbrenner Hall. The dean at the time, Howard B. Eisenberg, told the students that I would introduce him, because “Without Professor Kearney, there would be no Justice Scalia here.” Even before I could say anything, Justice Scalia brought the house down with this interjection: “I thought that, without Justice Scalia, there would be no Professor Kearney here.”

Justice Scalia returned to deliver the keynote address at the dedication of Eckstein Hall on September 8, 2010. He relaxed his strictures on recording, and the entire ceremony can be seen here, with an account of it appearing in the Marquette Law Review. I especially recall this comment of Judge Diane S. Sykes, L’84, in introducing the Justice:

“So we are fortunate, indeed, that this history-making justice has joined us here today as we make a little history of our own. When Dean Kearney unveiled the plans for this beautiful building two years ago, he famously declared that Eckstein Hall will be ‘noble, bold, harmonious, dramatic, confident, slightly willful, and, in a word, great.’ It certainly is. And with the possible exception of harmonious—Justice Scalia has been known to say that one of his charms is that he likes to tell people what they don’t want to hear—the dean’s description of this distinguished and splendid building might likewise be applied to our distinguished and splendid visitor. So, ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming the noble, bold, dramatic, confident, slightly willful, and, and in a word, great Justice Antonin Scalia.”

There are things to learn from the remarks of Justice Scalia and the other speakers that day, including then-Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, whether in the recording or the law review account linked above. My own recollection of Justice Scalia has appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and can be found here.




Is the Senate Free to Ignore President Obama’s Choice of a Replacement for Justice Scalia?

Posted by:
Category: Constitutional Interpretation, Constitutional Law, Election Law, Federal Law & Legal System, President & Executive Branch, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
2 Comments »

Court[The following is a guest post from Professor J. Gordon Hylton, a former member of the Marquette Law School faculty.]

Justice Scalia’s unexpected death this past weekend has raised the question of how his seat on the Supreme Court will be filled. Some Republicans have already asserted that it would be inappropriate for the president to even place someone’s name in nomination during an election year.  Others have more modestly pointed out that the Republicans in the Senate would be within their constitutional function to use their majority power to veto any potential justice that the president might put forth.  Democrats, in contrast, emphasize the president’s constitutional duty to fill the slot and reject the idea that the impending election out to somehow stay the process of replacing departed United States Supreme Court rules.

What does the history of the Supreme Court tell us about this situation? As it turns out, in the Court’s more than 225 year history, sitting justices have died or retired/resigned from the Court during an election year (or the brief stretch of the president’s term in the following year) on twenty occasions.  In 14 of the 20 cases, a new justice was appointed and confirmed before the president’s current term ended.  (In 7 of the 20 cases, the sitting president was re-elected, but in none of these cases did the nomination go into the following term.)

However, the story is a bit different when the sitting president’s political party does not control the United States Senate. Not surprisingly, in the 12 cases when the president’s party has been in control of the Senate, the open-vacancy has been filled 11 times.  The one exception came in 1968, when sitting Chief Justice Earl Warren announced in June that he planned to retire before the end of the year.

Read more »




Remembering Antonin Scalia

Posted by:
Category: Public, U.S. Supreme Court
Leave a Comment »

scalia [The following is a guest post from Daniel Suhr ’08, a prior guest alumni contributor to the Blog.]

Perhaps it is because I’ve been reading lots of Churchill lately, but in all events I am firmly convinced that there is concrete, substantive meaning to the label, “a great man.” That said, Antonin Scalia was a great man.

I remember that in high school, my father pulled me from class one afternoon to see Justice Scalia speak at Marquette’s Weasler Auditorium. I have an especially distinct recollection of a story the Justice told when asked about the difference between his policy views and his judicial philosophy. He said the morning after the release of the opinion in Texas v. Johnson, the case upholding a First Amendment right to flag burning, his wife hummed a particularly patriotic tune while making him breakfast. I subsequently saw Justice Scalia speak perhaps ten times — at the grand opening of Eckstein Hall, at the Pfister Hotel, at the Union League of Philadelphia, at a private dinner at the Court, and in several ballrooms of the Mayflower Hotel. In the last venue was my latest, and now final, opportunity to see him — he gave remarks on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (he insisted on leaving off the definitive article). His remarks were like his opinions: witty and wise, intelligent and insightful, and usually with a sharp elbow passed off as entirely innocent.

Others will recount at greater length the evidence for this proposition: that he was the most consequential justice of our lifetimes. Certainly the conservative legal movement would not exist as it does today without him, nor the Federalist Society as the embodiment of that movement. Ultimately I ascribe three key principles to him: textualism, the rule of law, and the sacredness of the Constitution itself. Read more »